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Iran supports 'axis of resistance,' armed gangs it runs in the Arab world

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Iran, like the United States, is a key actor linked to the multiple conflicts in the Middle East right now. Iran backs Hamas in its fight against Israel, and it also supports other proxy groups across the region. Now, for a look at how Iran manages this vast network, we're joined by NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, so start off by giving us an overview of how extensive the Iranian network is across that region.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Yeah, A, if you step back from all these localized conflicts in the Middle East, most are really linked in some larger, overarching way to the main conflict, which is Iran on one side and the U.S. and Israel on the other. Iran, which is a Persian country, supports several separate Arab groups fighting daily really now in five separate countries against Israeli and U.S. forces. And certainly the focus is on Gaza, where Iran backs Hamas in its war with Israel. But Iran is also supporting militants fighting in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. I spoke with Hussein Ibish at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Here's how he describes Iran's activity over the past few months.

HUSSEIN IBISH: They've very cautiously unleashed the whole network of armed gangs that they run in the Arab world that they call the axis of resistance.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, so let's start off with how Iran is helping Hamas.

MYRE: Yeah, for many years, Iran trained Hamas. It provided the group with weapons and technical know-how for its rockets. And all this helped give Hamas the ability to carry out that major October 7 attack in Israel. But now that the war is ongoing, Hamas is essentially on its own. It's no longer getting any real help from the outside, from Iran or anyone else. Again, Hussein Ibish.

IBISH: This war demonstrates both Iran's biggest strengths and biggest weaknesses. Biggest weakness is that there's really not much they can do to strengthen Hamas' hand now that the fighting is on the ground in Gaza.

MARTÍNEZ: He first mentioned Iran's biggest strength. What's he referring to there?

MYRE: He's really talking in this case about the Houthis in Yemen. Iran has armed the Houthis in Yemen's civil war, which is a brutal conflict, but one that's largely been below the radar. But all of a sudden, the Houthis are now using drones, missiles and small attack boats to cause a major disruption to international shipping in the Red Sea off the southwest coast of Yemen. Now, the U.S. Navy is beating back many of these attacks, but major commercial shippers like Maersk are now avoiding the Red Sea and taking this much longer and more expensive route around the southern tip of Africa.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, let's turn now to Hezbollah in Lebanon, trading fire with Israel across the border there. What's the risk of escalation?

MYRE: So the risk is great. Hezbollah is a very strong military force with a huge supply of Iranian rockets and missiles. But so far, Hezbollah has only engaged in limited volleys with Israel. It shows that Iran and Hezbollah are doing something to support Hamas, and it does keep Israeli forces occupied near the country's northern border. But the fighting has not become a second major front in the war. Iran and Lebanon face internal problems, and they really don't seem interested in a full-scale war.

MARTÍNEZ: So overall, is Iran pleased with the way these conflicts are playing out right now?

MYRE: Well, Hussein Ibish says yes.

IBISH: I think Iran is delighted with everything that's happened. It's reinforced their commitment to using proxy groups in the Arab world to get, essentially, fanatical Arabs to fight their wars for them.

MYRE: And we haven't even mentioned the small-scale attacks that militant factions are waging against U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq. U.S. troops have been attacked more than a hundred times recently. And again, this shows Iran's broad proxy network across the Middle East.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Greg Myre. Thanks for breaking this down, Greg.

MYRE: Sure thing, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.